Downtowns That Are Sustainable and Healthy

By Frank Teng

Frank Teng is a current MBA in Sustainable Management student at Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco and is on the board of Sustainable Silicon Valley. He works with Jones Lang LaSalle, a global real estate services firm, to manage global energy and sustainability programs for corporate clients in the technology and financial services sectors. Please note: Frank's views are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of his employer.

In a reversal from trends of the last century, U.S. central cities are now growing faster than their suburbs, according to the latest census data. Sure, suburbs are continuing to grow as well, but there is been a marked shift, from 2010-2013, as Baby Boomers and young professionals seek the urban cores. As downtowns grow more dense there are increased pressures and opportunities facing inhabitants and infrastructure. Can downtowns rise to the challenge of improving health and well-being, as well as sustainability?

50% by 2030

A group called the 2030 Districts is striving to achieve dramatic reductions in GHG emissions by leveraging the interest and buzz of downtown activity to shift private sector practices. Traditionally most of the downtown built environment of office towers and condos has been under the control of distant investors and large property management firms, often focused on financial returns more than sustainability. The boom in interest of living and working in urban cores has created a fortunate confluence of events:

  • Higher rental rates are creating stiffer competition and new streams of revenue
  • New municipal regulations are mandating individual buildings to disclose their energy performance
  • The availability of technologies and programs to improve sustainability, from new business models to increasing utility company rebates to the sharing economy


In Seattle, they demonstrated how to successfully form public/private partnerships among these downtown power players and are now replicating the approach across major urban hubs such as Los Angeles, Cleveland, Denver, and Pittsburgh. The downloadable annual report from the Seattle 2030 District shows that great progress has been made across the district in reducing energy 8% from their baseline in 2010 and transportation emissions by 13%, with more work to go on water.  133 buildings with 38 million sq. ft. have joined the challenge, roughly 37% of the total square footage in the District. Participating buildings have been able to achieve even higher levels of energy, water, and transportation performance.

These groups of property owners and managers are joining forces to meet the targets established by Architecture 2030 in their 2030 Challenge for Planning. This challenge sets environmental goals over the next 15 years (with intermediate goals every 5 years) related to new, renovated, or existing physical spaces of all sizes.  By 2030, the goal is to reduce emissions by 50%, a non-trivial task. Its drum beat has been taken up by individuals, organizations & companies, and local governments. The 2030 Districts are organized and led locally to reflect their regional cultures, but follow a common set of clear environmental targets, methods of engagement, toolkits, case studies, and periodic conferences. It’s clear they believe that more can be accomplished together than apart.

These models of privately organized collaboration can become a platform for focused attention and participation in meeting sustainability goals, accelerate sharing resources and knowledge, and enable demonstrations of new technologies and processes. Even traditional models of sharing infrastructure through district heating and cooling may evolve into pooled renewable energy purchasing or networked building controls. EPA’s announcement last week of the top 25 U.S. cities with the most ENERGY STAR buildings is further illuminating this encouraging progress.

Healthy Downtowns

Improving environmental performance is laudable, but how are these cities also enabling better lifestyles for their denizens? Walk Score’s latest ranking of the best and worst cities for food access offers one data point on this question. Food deserts can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease. Washington D.C. has set a goal for 75% of residents to be within a 5 minute walk of health food (compared to 41% currently), as well as place parks or natural space within a ten-minute walk of all residents. Looking holistically to ensure infrastructure and service availability does not create inequities is critical for cities to live up to their livable promise.

The Farm Bill passed in February includes a solution that has growing potential to help mitigate the issue of food deserts. Food stamps accepted at farmer’s markets will now be eligible for a matching program that doubles their value, thus encouraging healthy eating that also supports local economies. With funding of $20 million a year and at least 500 farmers markets participating, observers are seeing a marked increase in consumption of fruits and vegetables is helping hungry families while also addressing the obesity crisis.

In Boston, doctors have taken this one step further. Physicians at the Boston Medical Center will begin handing out prescriptions for a one-year membership to the city’s bike-sharing system to low-income patients with obesity health concerns. It’s a way to encourage a healthier lifestyle, mobility access, and leverage city infrastructure at a subsidized cost of $5 per year ($80 less than the usual charge for the annual subscription service). Regular physical activity has been shown to have a host of health benefits. Encouraging utilization of city services is a fascinating link. Best of all, utilization of these “prescriptions” can be tracked over time, thus providing hard data on long term behavior change. If cities can emulate this healthy mobility model in other areas, then win-win or even win-win-win scenarios are achievable. Perhaps the increased usage of bike-sharing will also help the bankruptcy-plagued Bixi bicycle company.

As population shifts toward urban cores creates a denser society, smart cities will need to keep an eye on how to keep leveraging private sector interest in sustainability as well as creating the conditions for livable locales and healthy residents.

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